The voice of Christopher Hitchens

The incomparable Christopher Hitchens published a piece last spring in Vanity Fair about what it means to have a voice. Hitchens has cancer, and one of the effects has been a weakening of his vocal abilities.

Most despond-inducing and alarming of all, so far, was the moment when my voice suddenly rose to a childish (or perhaps piglet-like) piping squeak. It then began to register all over the place, from a gruff and husky whisper to a papery, plaintive bleat. And at times it threatened, and now threatens daily, to disappear altogether.

For those of us who have been lifted by his voice to euphoric, and of course godless, realms, this is a great loss. For though I can imagine many worlds greater than this, a world without an intoning Hitchens is not a world anyone should have to live in.

Hitchens recounts the time when he learned, as it were, to write properly. He had a professor (old story), and that professor told him (new story) “to write more like the way you talk.” I can imagine Hitchens – who I’m sure has never shown even the slightest twitch of timidity – being torn between rewarding self-satisfaction and unbearable shame. Was the professor simply complimenting his spoken diction, or actually lambasting his prose (aic) skills?

Having read a bit of Hitchens, however, it’s pretty easy to tell he heeded the advice. He is one of those rare intellectuals capable of combining, in both his prose and his speech, the ponds of the mundane with the seas of the ecstatic. Just check out this sentence:

All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to (in younger days) trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me.

Basically the essay examines the intersection of physical and authorial voices. For Hitchens, an actual voice is something like the condition for the possibility of displaying a written voice. Or at least a written voice worth reading. Oral traditions gave rise to written ones and symposia became classrooms. He even postulates that there likely has never been a great piece of writing produced by someone who didn’t have the ability to speak, or, at least, didn’t once have the ability.

It is an important lesson for us all, and one that I struggle with applying every day. Too often intellectualism and intelligence is conflated with the production of obscure academese. Great powers of old, such as Hegel, viewed abstruseness as a virtue, in that it demand rigorous textual engagement on the part of the reader. But this need not be the case. Obscurity is neither a necessary and certainly not a sufficient condition for producing good work.

Do not be mistaken. I am not making an appeal for anti-intellectualism. Rigorous confrontations with words and ideas ought to be extolled. It’s just that intelligence also requires a certain amount of intelligibility. Like most things, moderation is the key, so somewhere between Hemingway and Derrida should do just fine.

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